The Supreme Court is a special place for Greg Bourke and Michael De Leon. The two men were among the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down state bans on marriage equality. Thanks to that 2015 decision, marriages like Bourke and De Leon’s are now legal everywhere in the United States.
Bourke and De Leon, a Kentucky couple who married in Canada in 2004, want to celebrate that historic case forever by putting an image of the Supreme Court on their headstone when they’re buried in a joint plot at St. Michael Cemetery in Louisville. But the Louisville Archdiocese is rejecting their request, saying it goes against Catholic teachings.
Bourke and De Leon’s proposed design features their names, a cross, the Supreme Court and an image of wedding rings. It’s the courthouse and the rings that the Archdiocese refuses to accommodate.
“Inscriptions on grave markers are permitted so long as they do not conflict with any teachings of the Church,” Javier Fajardo, executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Louisville, wrote in a March 30 letter to the couple posted by WDRB-TV this week. “Your proposed markings are not in keeping with this requirement.”
Fajardo said a headstone with the men’s names and dates of birth, and a picture of the cross, would be fine.
Bourke and De Leon purchased their burial plots last summer in St. Michael Cemetery. The place has personal meaning for them, because that section is where many members of Bourke’s family are also going to be interred.
“My parents’ plot and memorial — they’re still alive — are set up four rows from the plot Michael and I purchased last summer,” Bourke told The Huffington Post. “It’s kind of where the whole family is buried, in this one cemetery.”
Bourke and De Leon say they looked at other headstones in the cemetery and noticed that plenty of them feature images of wedding rings, even though the Archdiocese had told them their own stone couldn’t depict rings. They also saw images related to golfing, the University of Kentucky and even Churchill Downs Racetrack.
“In my mind, it’s outrageous that the church would think it’s OK to have an icon on a memorial of this palace for gambling, and yet they would find an image of the Supreme Court — which is an icon of American democracy — is somehow inconsistent with church teachings,” Bourke said.
In response to a HuffPost inquiry about the various images in the cemetery, the Archdiocese of Lousiville sent a statement Tuesday that said, “As with all markers in Catholic Cemeteries, determination as to the appropriateness of inscriptions or symbols is the judgment of the Executive Director of Catholic Cemeteries in consultation with the proper Church authority.”
“In this case,” the statement went on, “the judgment was made that the depiction presented was not in keeping with Church teaching about marriage.”
The Catholic Church is central in the lives of Bourke and De Leon, who are two of the most active members of their parish in Jefferson County.
In April 2015, The Huffington Post visited Bourke and De Leon, who were then gearing up for the Supreme Court case. Father Scott Wimsett, the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes, said that in his four years there, only “a handful of people” had ever seemed uncomfortable with Bourke and De Leon’s relationship.
“But [Bourke and De Leon] are loved and respected and people call them. They’re involved, and you see how they fit in,” Wimsett said.
“They’re just good people,” he added. “And that’s kind of what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Last year, the National Catholic Reporter named Bourke and De Leon its “persons of the year.”
Bourke, in particular, has long battled the Archdiocese of Louisville for equal rights. Bourke once served as a leader for his parish’s Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops. But eventually, he was forced out due to the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay leaders. Bourke said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz personally informed him he wouldn’t be allowed to come back and serve as a leader, even after the Boy Scouts reversed its policy. (The organization said it would still allow religious chartered groups to bar gay leaders if they wanted.)
Cecelia Price, an employee at Catholic Cemeteries, says it’s been their policy for at least the past 40 years that the cemetery needs to review and approve headstone designs.
The couple will hold a “Freedom to Bury” press conference on the issue Wednesday morning at St. Michael Cemetery.
Read the Archdiocese’s full statement below:
Statement from the Archdiocese of Louisville:
A Catholic cemetery is a place that serves the faithful and witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ and the hope we share in the resurrection. This ministry of the sacred rite of burial is offered to the Catholic community and all of God’s people. To this end, it is a place where the signs and symbols of our Catholic faith are displayed with pride and reverence.
As with all markers in Catholic Cemeteries, determination as to the appropriateness of inscriptions or symbols is the judgment of the Executive Director of Catholic Cemeteries in consultation with the proper Church authority.
In this case, the judgment was made that the depiction presented was not in keeping with Church teaching about marriage. Mr. Bourke and Mr. De Leon are welcome to present another headstone design for approval.